[This is a guest post by Tara Betts. Her info is at the end of the post.]
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
— from Lucille Clifton’s Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press, 1993)
I kept notebooks as a little girl, and I always knew I had books in me – books other people would want to publish and read. I still have one of my handmade books, bound with purple yarn, the lavender construction paper cover sealed in clear shelf paper. The title in purple marker reads “Differences”. It’s the earliest collection of my poems that I still have.
Since then, I’ve published poems, essays, and articles in noted journals and anthologies in the U.S. and other countries; written for magazines about hip hop and literature; and blogged about whatever mattered to me. I toured across the country and trekked to London and Cuba where I led and took workshops and performed my work. I shared poems on Chicago radio stations that I listened to as a high school student in Kankakee, IL, and eventually appeared on television doing the thing I loved most—sharing my poems.
These were all things that no one expected from people where I grew up. Kankakee is a small town, just south of Chicago, predominantly Black and hit very hard when the last factory downsized and eventually closed while I was still in high school. At one point, our town was voted the worst place to live in America, and the economy still has never really recovered. Before that, my friends and I talked about writing, making music, starting businesses, and going to college as our escape into adulthood and away from Kankakee. We talked about all these big dreams.
The thing is, no one ever told you how to get past the dreaming and get to the doing.
I want to let people know that no one can really tell you. Persistence sounds like some tired adage, and there are times when I can honestly say the only time I feel like my whole self is when words fill the blank pages of a notebook, or when the screen becomes a march of paragraphs across that blank white square. This is what sustains me every time I hear the word NO.
I had people tell me when I was performing, that I was a woman and somehow less engaging, unless I was sexier. People were confused because my light-skinned appearance, which favors my white mother, didn’t match the black-identified content in my work. People still ask me, even though I haven’t been on a poetry slam team in seven years, how do you balance publishing and spoken word? Or before I began teaching at the university level, I heard, “Where’d you receive your degree?” or “What institution are you affiliated with?”
There was always a box that somehow solidified a rejection in my mind. Luckily, rejection has never been much of a stumbling block for me. I didn’t get into the first MFA programs that I applied to, or every journal that I submitted to, but I knew that the acceptances would come as long as I was persistent.
When it came time to submit my manuscript, I shared it with people I trusted. Revised it, took out poems, added poems, changed the sequence, and tried to get to know the book in a new way. I changed the title three times before deciding on Arc & Hue, from a poem in the book where I sketch with a little boy using sidewalk chalk. Jabari will probably not remember this moment or cradle it, small and precious. I found myself thinking about how much of life is like such poems that consider memory as something that rarely lingers in expected ways. Instead, nostalgia often clings to whatever is left of what we understand as the past.
I plotted and daydreamed about my release party and outlined all the ways I’d promote the book. I made a list of every press that focused on women, writers of color, first book prizes, and books that I liked. I looked up all their guidelines and followed them to the letter. I began making trips to the post office, taking at least 3 manuscripts at a time to drop in the mail; one trip weighed in at 6 copies of my 60-plus page manuscript. The money spent on photocopies, inkjet cartridges, postage, and reading fees was shocking to my part-time salary.
When the first rejections poured in, I felt like I was avoiding hail stones, but I kept on sending it out, not stopping until 33 presses and prizes. By the time most of these submissions had been rejected, I received a call from the poetry editor at Aquarius Press who said that they might be interested in the book. I didn’t believe it until the contract arrived, and I signed it. I still couldn’t get excited, though.
Now that I had a publisher, how could I make sure that the book would get out and get the attention it deserved? I mean, it is poetry from a small press, not a novel from a mainstream publisher with distribution into every major chain. So, it started all over again: Where can I read to let people know the book exists? How are bookstores going to know the book is out there? How do we get the review copies to people who should have them?
Arc & Hue is an important step for me, but it is only a first step.
This book might help me get a better teaching job or open the door for me to read in more prestigious places. I am also applying for prizes that I would not have been eligible for before as an unpublished writer, which starts the entire submission cycle over again, but this is the life I have chosen to keep writing.
My writing also represents a lot of people who may never write anything deemed worthy of a perfect-bound cover and its own ISBN number.
There will be other books, but I am hoping this is the one that all the emails and letters I’ve received say they have been waiting for. Maybe there will be a woman in a library or a bookstore who picks up my book and utters a soft “yes” in the aisle when she reads one of the poems. Perhaps there will be a young brother who says, “I ain’t into poetry, but I dig what this poet is saying; check it.”
Part of me waits for these whisperers and sharers because that’s my clan; in spite of what anyone says about the decline of publishing or poetry’s lack of popularity, I’ve seen otherwise. I just know that as poets, we have to grow tentacles, not just deeper roots. We have to keep coming and extending into new spaces and opportunities. When the world speaks the simple-minded language of “no”, I find myself remembering my childhood, the challenges of growing up in a small town that factories left behind, and the people that first heard the dreams that are just starting to become real.
Being published means that what I wanted to do as a little girl is finally happening, and it’s because I didn’t take “no” for an answer.
Tara Betts is the author of Arc & Hue (Willow Books, 2009). She is a Cave Canem fellow and teaches writing classes at Rutgers University. Her work appears in numerous journals and anthologies, and has also been adapted for several theater productions; featured on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” and “SPOKEN” with Jessica Care Moore.